It seems like these days, Killer Mike can do no wrong. Whether he’s rocking sold-out shows from Atlanta to Indio or dropping by different colleges to spread wisdom, it would as appear as though the rapper has reached a point of career comfort. Not so much.
Though the Grammy-winning husband and father is in higher demand than he’s ever been, the realist in Killer Kill from Adamsville remembers the struggles and learning experiences that got him to this point: major label fuckery involving his debut album, Monster, followed by a stint on Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon imprint (fka Aquemini Records). In fact, he almost quit rapping altogether. In his own words, Killer Mike explains how he went from a pigeon to a plane, creating his own path to success along the way. Take notes.
Killer Mike, as told to Gavin Godfrey:
The first time I thought I made it was when I got a record deal [Laughs]. The second time I thought I made it was when I ended up on someone else’s hit single. When I really made it, it was after 10 tumultuous years of figuring out how I wanted to properly present myself versus how a company wanted to present me. And that’s not an indictment of those companies because a company’s job is to make money off their investment. At the time, the companies had been Elektra and Columbia and essentially it was like, “Big black guy, let’s figure out how to make him a Biggie-esque type figure.” Although I could rap my ass off and had clever lines, that wasn’t the totality of me.
What it took was for me to take some years to break past the image that was first presented as me. I always tell people I don’t like the song, “A.D.I.D.A.S.” I don’t like the song; it was never my record. It was a record given to me by ‘Kast because Columbia felt they needed another single. It was cool; it wasn’t a bad record or anything. I spent most of my career just trying to make sure that wasn’t the last song I was remembered for.
I listened to Michael Jordan’s acceptance speech for the Hall of Fame and it’s amazing how many things drove him, and the things that drove him were him being denied or him feeling like he deserved more than what he’d been given. He was playing for the University of North Carolina, but felt like he deserved to be on that Sports Illustrated cover. You can tell that bothered him to the core, and it bothered him to the point that drove him to be a champion. With me it was the opposite; I did not want to get remembered with “A.D.I.D.A.S.” being my last and biggest record. So, honest to God, my career, and where I am right now has been built off killing the image of that record [Laughs]. I like the record—I rapped my ass off and it was dope, but that’s not what I want on my eulogy.
I didn’t know how to be brave at that point, so I was trusting other people to be brave for me, which you should never do. You should be brave for yourself.
From Monster I learned to be brave because “Re-Akshon” should have been the second single. “Akshon” was a dynamic first single, it got people’s attention. “Re-Akshon” was also a dynamic single which was me, Tip, and Bun B, a combination of people I’ve loved my whole career. The beat was Lil’ Jon and the hook was Bone Crusher, and it was authentically rapping over a crunk beat. It was perfect for the time. The record company didn’t know it or understand it, so they didn’t back it. I should never—going back to business—have shot that video (for “A.D.I.D.AS.”). I should have demanded that we would shoot a video for “Re-Akshon” or I didn’t give a fuck. I didn’t know how to be brave at that point, so I was trusting other people to be brave for me, which you should never do. You should be brave for yourself. I never made that mistake again.
Purple Ribbon worked great because it taught me to artistically figure shit out. I went from being OutKast’s lil’ bro to a leader in the Purple Ribbon complex. Big Boi has a great ear for talent and he’s a great business man. Every business contract does not work out, but he picked Scar who turned out to be a hell of a writer and singer, Janelle Monae, who is a superstar, and Killer Mike, who went on to be one of the most dominant rap forces in the last four or five years. He’s been dead-on in the talent he picked, it’s just that it took a time for the business and talent to catch up to where everything works in the way he saw it.
I had gotten to the point where I just didn’t give a fuck about being on a major label after that. I could give a fuck! I could sell 1,000 CDs and make $10,000, so why the fuck do I want to be on a major label?
He called the success that I’m having. He called that success that Janelle Monae is having. So, Purple Ribbon was great, they were just doing business with Virgin. Virgin felt like Sleepy Brown and Bubba Sparxxx should’ve come out before me. I had gotten to the point then—I had gone to Texas, I had learned how to put out music independently—where I just didn’t give a fuck about being on a major label after that. I could give a fuck! I could sell 1,000 CDs and make $10,000, so why the fuck do I want to be on a major label? I microsized my expectations and goals. I started pressing up my own CDs—5,000 to 10,000 at a time—and putting them out underground. It started paying off and I figured it out. It was hard. It was not easy, but it was worth in the end for me because no one was telling me what to do.
I Pledge Allegiance to the Grind, I literally had people from the record company coming to the small, house studio we were recording in with a contract and money, saying, “Please sign! Let’s get it!” I was like, “No. Fuck it.” I had decided then that the only way I could accept failing again was by my own decision [making]. I couldn’t accept a failure that was the decision of anyone else, and I couldn’t accept having to depend on someone else.
When Dre left Aquemini [Records] it was one of the most soul-crushing things to happen to a label. Dre and Big worked in tandem, and it felt like the head coach or offensive coordinator of a championship team leaving, and you’re the rookie. You’re the new guy. You signed to this college just to come here for these two coaches and one of them leaves, just out of nowhere. I couldn’t let myself be back in a position where my fate was decided by the presence of anyone else or the decision of anyone else. Even with business deals after that I didn’t make it hard for the businesses to do business with me. I’m like, “Let’s figure out cool partnerships and just do it.” I’ll never be in a position again where I’m simply an employee. I never will.
I know I wanted to stop. A couple of times my homies wouldn’t let me. Sometimes my wife wouldn’t let me. Sometimes I wouldn’t let myself, and I didn’t stop. I know if you don’t stop, something going to happen.
It’s a blessing, but I would be lying if I told you guys I’ve done a lot commiserating or commemorating—I haven’t because I’ve been trying hard not to drown. When you’re trying not to drown you don’t know how you just swam three miles, you just know you did it, and the shore is a mile away. What I can tell you is that every year I dedicated myself to putting music out and not stopping. Every year I dedicated myself to getting in front of an audience, and not stopping. And every year I figured out a way to grow myself because most people tend to do this and they idolize people who are hot at the moment.
I idolize Bun B. I idolize Scarface. I idolize people that have had 20-year careers. I’m not going to forget Snoop. Snoop has been five different rappers, he’s been five different business people. Watching him I learned you better grow and you better expand and every year thats what I do, try and figure out how to push myself, how do I grow myself? Every year, how do I give something new? How do I make sure that I’m significant?
E-40 called me an hour ago, you know what I’m saying [Laughs]? E-40’s got one of the most jammingest-ass records on the radio right now. I’ve been listening to E-40 since I was sitting in science class in high school. So, I guess when you’re in the middle of it, I don’t know, I just know I didn’t stop. I know I wanted to stop. A couple of times my homies wouldn’t let me. Sometimes my wife wouldn’t let me. Sometimes I wouldn’t let myself, and I didn’t stop. I know if you don’t stop, something’s going to happen.
Being on your grind is choosing not to buy those $200 Jordans, but to put $200 worth of gas in your tank and go to Chattanooga.
Being on your grind is not going in the studio, pressing up a tape and saying, “I did it.” Being on your grind is knowing I’m going to have to work this independent project as long as it takes to break. Being on your grind is choosing not to buy those $200 Jordans, but to put $200 worth of gas in your tank and go to Chattanooga and Columbus [Georgia]. So, it’s not just, “I have a tape,” or “I have a product.” It’s about figuring out how to market yourself, how to be creative, figuring out how to be a business person. That’s what I had to figure out.
I’m no business and marketing genius, but I trust my own instincts. All the Run the Jewels shit; the t-shirts are our ideas done through our resident artist Nick Gazin. Our campaign to release the album free is just because El and I believe if you get it, and you like you’ll support it through buying t-shirts, CDs, or coming to the shows. I trust my own instincts. My marketing plan may not work for you, so figure out your plan. Constantly be thinking about yourself. You can’t save everybody, so save yourself first. Grind your ass off. Get rich independently.